Western Lands, The


Western Lands, The
by William S. Burroughs
(1987)
   The Western Lands is the final volume of William S. Burroughs’s cut-up trilogy that also includes cities of tHe red niGHt (1981) and The place of dead roads (1984). In his acknowledgments, he credits Norman Mailer’s Ancient Evenings (1983) for “inspiration.” Burroughs must have been excited to discover in Mailer’s book a cosmology that was so close to his own personal mythology, for through Mailer’s description of Egyptian myth and ritual, Burroughs was able to recast his previous work in a new and vital form. There must not only have been recognition here but also validation, and Burroughs takes some pains to show the ways in which his own ideas from the past 40 years of writing find their counterparts in the knowledge of the ancients.
   In Egyptian mythology the Western Lands is where the soul lives on after death. The old writer who was introduced at the beginning of the novel “sets out to write his way out of death”—a strategy that Burroughs adopted quite consciously after the tragedy of his wife Joan’s death in 1951. In his research on death, he learns (in Mailer’s Ancient Evenings) that the Egyptians believed that there were seven souls and that each soul is personified. These personifications, it turns out, closely resemble the sci-fi cosmology that Burroughs had created on his own. For example, the first soul (Ren) is very much like Burroughs’s “Director,” the second soul (Sekem) the Director’s sometimes recalcitrant “Technician,” and so on. The body corresponds to Burroughs’s favorite disaster metaphor—the sinking ship—and souls are deserting the ship as they leave the body. In this they resemble the “Italian steward who put on women’s clothes and so filched a seat in a lifeboat” in Burroughs’s various retellings of the sinking of the Titanic and the Morro Castle (such as “Twilight’s Last Gleaming”). The “Venusian invasion” of Burroughs’s mythology is “a takeover of the souls.” The ultimate killer of souls, says Burroughs, will be the radiation from atomic blasts, for souls (following the findings of Wilhelm Reich) are seen “as electromagnetic.” That is the real destructive power of the bomb, and it has been created as a “Soul killer” to keep a glut of souls out of the Western Lands.
   The explanation of the seven souls provides a map of the book. In the opening storyline, Burroughs searches for an identity for his main character, starting out with Carl Peterson and then switching to Kim Carsons. The setting is Berlin in the postwar period, where Kim becomes involved with an underground group known as Margaras Unlimited, “a secret service without a country,” that specializes in disrupting the plans of the victor nations and wealthy ex-Nazis. Their agenda is space exploration, inner and outer, and “expanding awareness.” Anything that goes against such development “we will extirpate.” Margaras Unlimited, then, closely resembles the Articulated of Cities of the Read Night and the Johnson Family of The Place of Dead Roads.
   Burroughs introduces a new character, Joe the Dead, who, it turns out, was the gunman who shot Kim Carsons and Mike Chase at the end of The Place of Dead Roads. Joe is a Technician, the second soul. He killed Mike Chase and Kim Carsons because both were responsible, directly and indirectly, for the death of photographer Tom Dark, one of Joe’s fellow guild members. He personally disliked Kim because he is an “arty type, no principle” and also because of Kim’s fascination with “antiquated weaponry.” Mike Chase was going to be president, which would have been a disaster. Joe the Dead is a member of a select group that is known as Natural Outlaws and is dedicated to breaking the laws of science. Joe specializes in breaking the laws of evolutionary biology: first, that only closely related species may produce hybrids and, second, that mutations are irreversible. He is also an eco-warrior who is fighting the destruction of the rainforest. In all respects, then, he is an updated, 20th-century version of Kim and the Johnsons.
   Nerferti, an Egyptian scribe, is introduced as a character who is supposed to bring “drastic change,” to the world. His writings, however, “are shot down by enemy critics backed by computerized thought control.” The world of the book is a magical one, and Neferti practices black magic to kill Julian Chandler (based on Anatole Broyard, who savaged The Place of Dead Roads), a book reviewer for the New York Times who has “chosen for his professional rancor the so-called Beat Movement.” Chandler earns his death by penning a caustic review of William Hall’s The Place of Dead Roads (Neferti is apparently Hall). See and Prick, two goons who work for Big Picture (a plan to evacuate the select few before nova conditions set in), are also killed by magic. The cause of their death is traced back to 1959 (the year of naked luncH’s publication) and to William Seward Hall, “the writer, of course.” The antiwriter in the book is Joe the Dead, who criticizes Kim for “irresponsible faggotry” by his “re-writes of history”—a critique of the two previous novels that holds up better than Chandler’s insubstantial charges against Hall. After killing Kim, Joe goes into deep freeze for 50 years and wakes up rich from his investments. Joe, the biological outlaw, now practices magic against the medical community. He studies Reich’s theories on cancer and the “retarded medical profession” that persecutes him. Hall reads the doctor’s books and sees his “Doctor Benway shine forth as a model of responsibility and competence by comparison.” Joe causes medical riots in 1999 by leaking information on cancer cures that were withheld by the medical establishment.
   Kim returns to the novel and is “seen” in Mexico. He is apparently not dead. A little green man (later identified as the Aztec deity Ah Pook) leads him to a riverbank where they get into canoes. He will be Kim’s guide in the streets of Centipede City where Kim is sent by Dimitri, the District Supervisor, on another “impossible” mission—to find out why the Western Lands were created and why they had become “bogged down” in mummies. The actual voyage to the Centipede City takes place in a dream that Kim has of Neferti. Neferti manages to break the code of the “centipede cult,” and the “ancient writing” in the Mayan codex “crumbles to dust.”
   Neferti’s knowledge of these secrets is explained. He is a scribe who fulfills Burroughs’s dream as a writer—to be able to write directly in images. He is caught in an ongoing war between two religious factions, one of which worships many gods in a magical universe, the other of which is forcing the concept of One God. The One-God Universe is a “prerecorded universe” of “friction and conflict, pain, fear, sickness, famine, war, old age and Death.” The Magical Universe is one of many gods who are often in conflict, so there is no paradox of an allknowing God “who permits suffering, death.” The beginning of the pilgrimage to the Western Lands is a spiritual awakening that results from the knowledge that we live in the dead, soulless universe of the One God. Neferti steals the Western Land papyrus; comically, our modern knowledge of the scrolls comes initially from National Enquirer stories: “Ancient Egyptian Papyrus Demonstrates That Life After Death Is Within The Reach of Everyman.” The pharaohs are uproarious because of the ensuing “glut” of souls in the Western Lands. The book takes on the form of a spiritual allegory, a pilgrim’s progress/Canterbury tale on the road to the afterlife. The Great Awakening provides the blueprint for the dangerous journey—“by definition the most dangerous road in the world.” Travelers first are outfitted in Waghdas, the ancient city of knowledge but also a stand-in for Burroughs’s hometown of St. Louis. The road is beset by con men of every conceivable stripe and often wanders off in labyrinthine detours. Neferti is guided by a beautiful Breather (whose breath can bring both death and delight) across the Duad—“a river of excrement, one of the deadliest obstacles on the road to the Western Lands.” This river represents the fatal dualism of Western thought and also the duality of the sexes, which prevents entry into the Western Lands. Neferti tells the young scribes that he can offer them freedom from “all this mummy shit.” The error of the pharaohs is that they based immortality on the physical body (mummies) and built their heaven on that principle. Nerferti argues that we can create a Western Land that is made of dreams, just as artists live by thought and creativity.
   Several examples of how Burroughs’s previous work “fits” into the Egyptian scheme are given. For example, “Margaras,” the name of the underworld organization for which Joe the Dead works, is the Sanskrit name for “the Hunter, the Investigator, the Skip Tracer”—the latter a character in Naked Lunch and in the cut-ups trilogy of the 1960s. There are also examples of cut-ups taken from the early 1960s (particularly in Minutes to Go) that now make sense 30 years later, thus proving the prophetic power of the cut-up process. Nepherti continues his journey to the Western Lands and learns that he must meet with Hassan i Sabbah, who tells him, “Life is very dangerous and few survive it. I am but a humble messenger. Ancient Egypt is the only period in history when the gates to immortality were open, the Gates of Anubis. But the gates were occupied and monopolized by unfortunate elements . . . rather low vampires.” A chapter on Hassan I Sabbah details the training of his assassins for space travel. This requires evolution on the part of human beings. Political structures, though, preclude evolution by the enforcement of a uniform (nonmagical) environment: “The punctuational theory of evolution is that mutations appear quite quickly when the equilibrium is punctuated. Fish transferred from one environment to a totally new and different context showed a number of biological alterations in a few generations.” So if we change the environment, says Burroughs, we mutate. To keep humans from mutating quickly involves the enforcement of uniformity. But Burroughs comes to a key realization about the character of Hassan i Sabbah as he has been portrayed not only in this trilogy but in previous works: He realizes that he has been worshipping Hassan i Sabbah, has “invoked HIS aid, like some Catholic feeling his Saint medal.” Accordingly, he can now treat HIS just like any other character or “routine” in his work, and Hassan i Sabbah becomes for the first time a true “character.” He imagines a scenario where Nepherti and Hassan i Sabbah make it to the Western Lands and bring back knowledge that will destroy the Venusian Controllers. They soon have “everyone on their ass”—all the governments, churches, and powers that be. Orthodox religious leaders and some “reborn son of a bitch” accuse them of using magic because they recognize their creativity. From Alamout, HIS’s hideout, he sends assassins (including AJ, from Naked Lunch) to kill religious leaders. The Old Man becomes the writer now who realizes “I am HIS and HIS is me.” Dr. Benway has lunch with the Old Man and offers him a deal—a great place to live and potions that will restore his youth. But the Old Man presumably rejects this Faustian bargain, for the final chapter of the novel begins, “What is life when the purpose is gone?” This book is one of Burroughs’s last, and it has the feel of a winding down in this last chapter. In the Land of the Dead, Joe sees Ian Sommerville, with whom he cannot communicate, and Brion Gysin is a no-show at dinner. He recounts his days in Paris, in 1959: “We were getting messages, making contacts. Everything had meaning. . . . It reads like a sci-fi from here. Not very good sci-fi, but real enough at the time. There were casualties . . . quite a number.” He realizes now that all of his paranoid fantasies about receiving “assignments”—the secret agent stuff that is in many of his novels—was wrong: “There isn’t any important assignment. It’s every man for himself.” One scene takes place in Florida with his mother and his son Billy. He is getting older but can still say, unlike Prufrock, “At least I dare to eat a peach.” Joe is now Burroughs himself, moving about the house making tea. The old writer feels his inspiration leaving him, like one soul after another escaping. The book takes on an air of finality, a last-book feel: “His self is crumbling away to shreds and tatters, bits of old songs, stray quotations, fleeting spurts of purpose and direction sputtering out to nothing and nowhere, like the body at death deserted by one soul after the other.” The leaving of the seven souls is now a metaphor for the disintegrating consciousness of old age: “The old writer couldn’t write anymore because he had reached the end of words, the end of what can be done with words.” The Parade Bar is closed, he says, referring to his favorite haunt in Tangier in the 1950s. He actually ends the book with the words, “THE END,” something he has never done before because his other books were not the end: There was still more that could be done with words. Not at the end of this book, though.
   Rob Johnson

Encyclopedia of Beat Literature. . 2014.

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